15 buried miners saved
PANTUKAN, Compostela Valley, Philippines—Rescuers backed by bulldozers and other heavy equipment worked all day on Saturday to find more survivors of a landslide that hit the mining village of Panganason at around 2:30 a.m. on Good Friday.
Clad in orange suits, the rescuers sifted through the rubble in the hope of adding more survivors—15 so far—plucked from the mud and rocks. But 21 people remained unaccounted for, according to Maj. Jake Obligado, commanding officer of the 71st Infantry Battalion.
Obligado confirmed that “nine more people escaped death,” adding to the initial six dug out of the mud on Friday.
“It’s Divine Providence,” he said. “It’s good the tragedy happened on a Good Friday, when many families were away on vacation. If the landslide happened on a normal day, many would have died.”
Obligado said search-and-rescue operations would continue with the backing of various groups, including the police, the Philippine Red Cross and civilian workers.
Compostela Valley Gov. Arturo Uy said he had ordered a 30-day halt in all mining operations in the gold-rich areas of the province.
Uy said his order would be enforced as soon as he had met with town officials. He said he would assign the police to shut down all mining operations.
Many of these operations are illegal and unregulated, and there are frequent accidents, Reuters said in a report.
<strong>‘Here we are again’</strong>
Pantukan Mayor Celso Sarenas said the town had been witness to landslides of varying magnitudes since gold was first mined in its mountain barangays over 20 years ago.
Sarenas said a landslide occurred in Barangay Kingking and nearby Barangay Napnapan, killing at least 26, just two years ago. “Now, here we are again,” he said.
In a statement, Clyde Gillespie, an official of US-based, Canadian-listed St. Augustine Gold and Copper Mining Ltd., said the landslide occurred far away from the mining company’s area of operation.
“The landslide is in a very remote area called Upper Lumanggang, some distance away from areas in which [the Philippines’ Nationwide Development Corp.] and St. Augustine are conducting environmental and engineering studies,” Gillespie said.
On its website, St Augustine said the Kingking prospect was one of the largest underdeveloped copper-gold deposits in the world. The government’s mines bureau has listed Kingking as one of its priority investment projects.
“As quickly as it is feasible and safe, we will offer our assistance to help determine the cause of the incident,” the two companies said in a joint statement.
They also offered their assistance in the search-and-rescue operations. “Tragically, landslides of this sort are common throughout this area due to unstable slopes and frequent heavy rains,” they said.
Lt. Col. Lyndon Paniza, spokesperson of the 10th Infantry Division, said three people had so far been confirmed dead in the “grim” tragedy.
One, Junrex Torrejos, was dug out during the first hours of the search-and-rescue operations. The other two were found at past noon Saturday “but could not be retrieved immediately due to the huge volume of mud covering them,” Paniza said.
Obligado said the number of missing persons was uncertain because new workers arrived in the area prior to the landslide.
He said the search-and-rescue operations were “a race against time” because the longer the victims were buried in the mud, the lesser the chances that they would be plucked out alive.
Paniza agreed, saying: “We are hoping the number of the missing would not increase. But as hours go by, the chances of recovering more survivors are becoming dim.”
He said the number of persons involved in the search and rescue had been reduced but that the deployment of heavy equipment had been increased.
Some 500 to 800 cubic meters of mud now covers Sitio Panganason, Paniza said. “Seven of eight small-scale mining portals were covered as a result of the landslide,” he said.
Rico Clase, 29, literally swam in the moving avalanche of mud to avoid being buried and was barely under it when rescuers found him.
Clase, a veteran of two other landslides, said he was sound asleep after a drinking spree with fellow miners when he was “roused by the loud sound” early on Good Friday.
He said he was stunned to find himself suddenly out of his hut and atop the rushing mud.
“I moved my arms and feet furiously until my fellow miners found me and pulled me out of the mud minutes later,” he said.
Zeffrey Tundag, 15, had looked forward to his first day as a miner on Friday.
Tundag was sleeping in a hut with an uncle and another relative when, like Clase, he was awakened by a rumbling sound.
“The next thing I knew I was already half-covered with mud and rocks and our bunkhouse was swept several meters downhill,” he said.
His relatives and fellow miners plucked him out of the debris.
Col. Roberto Domines, commander of the Army’s 1001st Infantry Brigade, said intermittent rains had seeped into cracks in the hundreds of mining pits dug up by small-scale miners and triggered the deadly landslide.
Mayor Sarenas said the one-hectare-wide mudflow had engulfed dozens of shanties and other structures that had people inside.
“The day before the landslide occurred, there were dozens of transients who arrived in the area and most of them had not registered,” he said.
But Sarenas said that the number of people killed in the landslide was uncertain and that his earlier figure of 27 was erroneous. He said he had based the earlier death toll on data gathered by barangay health workers.
Sarenas said the local government had not been remiss in warning small-scale miners of the danger in the area, especially during rainy days.
“They’re hard-headed. We already advised them to leave the area as it has become too dangerous, but still they persist in staying as long as they can extract gold there,” he said.
But for veteran miner Clase, the prospects of earning good money outweighed the danger posed by mining.
“What I have been thinking is that danger is everywhere. If it’s your time, you’re not safe even in areas you think are safe,” he said.
<strong>P2,000 a gram</strong>
Sarenas said the lure of gold, “now priced at P2,000 a gram,” had drawn miners even from far places to try their luck in Kingking and other gold-rich villages in Pantukan.
But while Clase calmly anticipates similar disasters in the future as a small-scale miner, 15-year-old Tundag was visibly traumatized by the landslide.
“I don’t know if I still want to become a miner after what happened,” Tundag said from his bed at the Pantukan District Hospital, where he was being treated for cuts and bruises in the arms and face. <strong><em>With reports from Dennis Santos, Allan Nawal and Rosa May de Guzman-Maitem, Inquirer Mindanao; and Reuters</strong></em>
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